Wednesday, October 14, 2009

NAT: Stoneys

Cultivating Stoney Speakers
Dictionary in works to help fend off collapse of mother tongue
Greg Two Young Men is teaching his six-year-old son, Tason, to be bilingual. "I don't acknowledge him if he speaks to me in English," says Two Young Men.

The land that J. R. Two Young Men's family has tended for generations is rugged ground.

Dust clings to the old rancher's blue plaid shirt as he surveys the hilly territory in the shadow of the Rockies. At his feet, rows of wild prairie grass cut by tractors lie drying in the harvest sun.

The 71-year-old leans over and picks up a tuft of the prairie wool.

"We started late. Before the leaves turn yellow, we have to bale it," says Two Young Men.

The annual haying is a family tradition. In years past, Two Young Men brought his own children to the fields and taught them to harvest much like his own father showed him years before.

Today, his grandchildren come. The connection to the land is strong.

"I keep it going . . . to maintain a tradition of my grandfather, my father," says Two Young Men.

"I do it to make them feel they have (done) something important, to make them feel . . . a part of this."

As they work, the old man and his progeny talk. The conversation is largely in the words of their people, the Stoney Nakoda.

Two Young Men knows that like the annual cycle of planting and harvesting, a new generation of Stoney speakers must be cultivated.

In his advanced years, he worries about what will happen to the language if the harvest comes too late.

His oldest grandchildren have a grasp of Stoney, but they're not fluent. The youngest understand the language, but can't speak it.

The significance doesn't escape Two Young Men.

He fears the language is slipping away.

"It makes you sad," laments the grandfather of 14 children. "We have to find a way of how we can bring an awareness to the young people--of how important our language is."

Unlike other reserves in southern Alberta, the Stoney Nation has enjoyed some success protecting its language and passing along the skills to future generations.

English-speaking residential schools, and the reserve's location close to Calgary and Cochrane, didn't chip away at the Stoney language, experts say.

Even today, customers and staff at the Chiniki gas bar in Morley, the centre of the reserve, chatter away in Stoney.

Elementary, junior and senior high schools teach language classes. By some estimates, as many as 75 per cent of the 4,000 band members know some of the language.

"They have a very healthy community," says University of Calgary aboriginal language expert Darin Flynn. "It baffles other native communities that are struggling to revive their language."

Two Young Men knows what it takes for the language to survive. Hardly six years old when he was taken to an English-speaking residential school, his native tongue earned him regular beatings.

By 16, he dropped out.

Life on the reserve, though, proved difficult for the high-school dropout due to unemployment and poverty.

Hard times in his late 20s convinced him to get a better education and he attended the University of Calgary. By the late 1970s, Two Young Men graduated with a bachelor of education.

Years later, he broke more new ground, pursuing a master's degree in linguistics, but fell short by one credit. "Statistics, I could never do statistics," he says, chuckling.

Today, Two Young Men, an educational consultant and longtime teacher, is a respected Stoney elder. He is also one of a team of linguists, band members and educators of the Nakoda Stoney Owabize (written) group. Their task is to compile the first complete Stoney Nakoda dictionary for the band.

At the helm of the dictionary project is his nephew, Greg Two Young Men.

Like other native languages, the words and stories of the Stoney have been largely retained through oral tradition.

Some parents no longer pass it on to their children,

says Greg Two Young Men, chair of the dictionary group.

The Stoneys are "creating a dictionary which will help our people maintain and retain our mother tongue, our language," says the younger man, a broad-shouldered amateur rodeo-roper.

As keeper of the only Stoney dictionary in existence, he knows the work is essential.

By his own survey, about 95 per cent of band members spoke their mother tongue just two decades ago. The children of the last decade, however, are learning English first.

The dictionary is just one tool the group hopes will fend off a collapse of the language.

Greg Two Young Men concedes the work has been painstaking and tedious. Day by day, topic by topic, about 10 people write out the Stoney words and match them to their English counterparts.

"It's harder than I thought," he says, a soft laugh coming from his barrel chest.

The dictionary is actually more a pictionary, full of photos intended to engage both young and old. At least one attempted Stoney dictionary has failed, but Two Young Men is confident this latest effort will get off the ground.

One of the Stoney's band councils has put up about $20,000 for meetings, discussions, printings and travel so far.

The work has hit some bumps in the road, including what Two Young Men describes as "political sabotage" and internal bickering.

Despite these troubles, a first draft is expected to head to the printing press this fall.

When finished, the dictionary is intended to become a valuable tool for the band's language preservation efforts.

But a book can't do it alone. Over breakfast cereal and bedtime stories, parents and elders must pass down their knowledge of Stoney, says Greg Two Young Men.

He is teaching his six-year-old son, Tason, to be bilingual.

The father knows his son needs to learn English for economic opportunities, but needs to learn Stoney to stay connected to their heritage.

"I don't acknowledge him if he speaks to me in English. He knows both our language and English," says Two Young Men.

"I wish more parents would do the same."

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